There once was an artist who specialized in painting gloomy Victorian nighttime scenes. John Atkinson Grimshaw has largely been forgotten today but his work has the power to unsettle and unnerve the viewer, especially those conditioned to fear the kinds of things that happen in the late at night gothic atmosphere that he so deftly weaves into his canvases.
If you’ve seen any of the many classic Hammer horror films of the sixties and seventies then Grimshaw’s images will be familiar to you and probably associated with a mild frisson of fear. Even if you have only recently taken in Showtime’s new gothic horror serties Penny Dreadful, you will know Grimshaw’s landscapes as places where nameless horrors abound.
Thus, since today is Halloween, I thought it appropriate to take a look at the work of this almost forgotten artist.
John Atkinson Grimshaw was a remarkable painter who is less widely appreciated than he should be, for many reasons: little is known of his life and most of his paintings are in private collections. The subjects of his paintings are not fantastical in themselves, although he did do a number of “fairy” paintings which were fashionable for artists to do in the late Victorian era, but to modern viewers. Particularly those of us with a familiarity with gothic horror, his images are highly suggestive.
A self taught artist, Grimshaw pursued a career as a painter despite his parent’s bitter opposition. He began painting in the 1860’s with still life paiuntings but by 1870 he was successful enough to rent a 17th century mansion in Leeds, England. He preferred the night to the day and produced a very large number of “moonlights”, nighttime scenes painted in oils.
His paintings exude a sense of gloominess. What was the source of this gloomy attitude in Grimshaw? It could have been the strong disapproval that his parents had to his chosen profession, or the fact that three of his children died in their infancy. Or perhaps the gloominess is an artifact of the vast gulf of time that seperates their execution and our viewing of them today.
Perhaps back in the late Victorian era they would not have been seen the same way as we see them today. Back then, perhaps they were unremarkable paintings of scenes by moonlight, but looked at through modern eyes they seem to be something else. As I said, the paintings are not fantastical in themselves. The only light comes from the moon, usually shrouded by clouds and the occasional gaslight endemic to the period. There are no monsters depicted lurking in the shadows. The dark waters do not contain sea creatures. The shadowy figures seen walking at night are not depraved killers of the Jack-the-Ripper variety… or are they?
That is the real power of a Grimshaw image today. They seem pregnant with all sorts or eerie possibilities. His actual fantasy pictures, his fairy paintings, seem quite tame in comparison
So, Halloween is upon us and we remember the supernatural fear of the dark and the night in a fun way. But there was a time when fear of the night was palpable and with good reason. The night contained terrors and dread from which our modern towns and cities have separated us.
A Grimshaw gives you a bit of a window into that world, into that time when the night could not be held back by electric lights and all were at its mercy.